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Ad blitz to hit before conservation measure secures

BISMARCK — Before a proposed measure to divert millions of dollars from oil tax revenue for a conservation fund has even gained enough signatures for a spot on the ballot in November, organizations on both sides of the debate are gearing up to bring their fight onto the airwaves.

North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation, the main group opposing the circulating ballot measure, are preparing to air roughly $100,000 in advertisements across the state. Coalition chairman Jon Godfread said their ads will debut soon, highlighting their concerns such as the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be socked away, with mandated collection and expenditures written into the constitution.

In response, backers of the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment are working up their own, similarly sized campaign with the help of in-state and national agencies. They’ll frame their petition as necessary to protect North Dakota’s environment and outdoors amid booming oil production.

Media blitz expected

The measure’s proponents say they’re perplexed their opponents are campaigning so vigorously against a measure that hasn’t reached the required 29,604 signatures to make it on the Nov. 4 ballot. In a recent meeting with The Forum’s editorial board, group chairman Stephen Adair said they’re “ahead of schedule” but would not release any numbers.

Godfread said their campaign has two purposes: attempt to head off signature collections by informing North Dakotans “what they’re actually signing” and to try to define the measure early for voters if it makes the ballot.

With two months until the proponents’ petition deadline and another three months until North Dakotans head to the polls, the early campaign blitz forecasts a bitter — and perhaps expensive — battle over oil tax dollars between the two sides.

The state already sets aside money for its outdoor heritage fund, but those revenues are capped at $30 million every two years. Adair and other measure backers said much more is needed to keep pace with rapid changes across North Dakota.

“If we want to maintain our great quality of life … we believe this amendment is the best way to do it,” Adair said.

Their petition to amend the state constitution to set aside 5 percent of oil extraction revenues was approved by Secretary of State Al Jaeger in August, starting a mad dash for signatures.

Godfread’s opposition group quickly emerged. Opinion pieces flooded North Dakota newspapers and organizations lined up on each side of the debate — with national and local wildlife associations and businesses in favor, and business chambers, agricultural groups and the North Dakota Petroleum Council in the opponents’ corner.

Godfread and his allies have raised several concerns with the proposed amendment. Among them, he said it’s being driven by national interests. If passed, it would mandate spending in the state’s constitution, which he called “terrible policy, regardless of the issue.”

That’s not a perspective North Dakotans hear before signing, Godfread said. So despite early promises that they wouldn’t fundraise unless the measure made it on the ballot, the opposition coalition is hitting the airwaves.

“We really think there’s a need out there to educate the citizens as to what this petition means,” Godfread said.

Adair said measure backers are confident the idea of setting some oil tax revenues aside for conservation polls well with North Dakotans, but he acknowledged getting a “yes” vote can be more challenging than a “no.”

He said their ad campaign will highlight challenges to keeping water clean and wildlife populations healthy as the state’s economy has expanded.

Signatures an issue?

The proposed amendment for the November ballot is the group’s second try: A similar measure was tossed from the 2012 ballot due to fraudulent signatures.

On Tuesday, petitioners ran into trouble for allegedly being too close to polling places while gathering signatures — state law requires a 100-foot buffer. Godfread’s group has suggested it may file a formal complaint based on some voters’ experiences in Grand Forks and Bismarck.

In Jamestown, petitioners were reportedly set up under the doorway of a polling place. Stutsman County Auditor/Chief Operating Officer Casey Bradley said they didn’t move far enough from the building after being asked, and police were eventually called. Bradley said he intends to pursue charges.

Godfread called that incident “a clear violation of the law,” and said his group also intends to file a complaint over the Jamestown petitioners.

In a meeting with The Forum’s editorial board last week, backers of the conservation measure dismissed complaints about petitioners in Grand Forks and Bismarck as “bullying” by their opponents.

The incident in Jamestown devolved after their petitioners sought shelter under an awning during rain showers, they said.

“We’re waiting to get more facts on that,” group member Carmen Miller said.

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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